Dashing about with handheld phones and computer laptops, we constantly crash against the barrier of battery life. The little power packs aren't keeping up with the image of a fully mobile society. The chemistry in batteries gets a little better every year, but our demands grow faster.
So maybe we need a little magic: electricity that's delivered without wall plugs. A variety of new systems will recharge our cellphones, MP3 players and digital cameras without having to cable them into the grid. In fact, by year's end there should be at least five ways that we can detach ourselves from the outlet:
Wireless electricity. Bright, twinkling holiday lights displayed the ultimate in electrical convenience during last month's Consumer Electronics Show. Wireless power transmitted over radio frequency charged the decorations with tech from Powercast, a Pittsburgh startup that plans to sell the lights for the 2009 holiday season. The company says it can safely transmit small streams of power up to 50 feet that could power sensors and other small devices. Imagine no more batteries for fire detectors. More powerful systems are being developed by researchers, including "WiTricity" at MIT. They've shown it can wirelessly and safely power a TV from across a room using magnetic fields.
Plugless recharging. Soon, all we need do is toss our portables onto a desk, bedside table, or car console that has the smarts to do wireless recharging. Systems from several companies, most notably Powermat and eCoupled, should hit the market this year. They also use magnetic fields through inductive coupling, which sound exotic but is already found on some rechargeable toothbrushes. Powermat will sell, well, mats that get plugged into a wall outlet. Devices get recharged through attachable adapters. The system saves fumbling for various cables and can conserve energy through smart management. The mats will start at $100 each and adapters at about $30. eCoupled is getting its version installed inside devices, initially power tools from Bosch and flashlights from Energizer, that also get a wireless charge from mats installed in furniture, counters, and consoles.
Fuel cells. After much delay, the long-vaunted fuel cell has arrived for recharging handhelds. They also overcame a key hurdle when regulators okayed them and their potentially flammable fuels for travel on passenger jets. Medis Technologies is already selling the $30 Medis 24/7 Xtreme Power cell that packs enough power to recharge a wireless handset as many as six times. The power pack weighs less than 7 ounces, and can sit on a shelf for 18 months or longer. A squeeze after peeling off some tape activates the unit, after which the power is available for another 30 days or so. Competitors plan to introduce other versions this year, including one from MTI MicroFuel with replaceable fuel cartridges.
Wind power. In addition to giant turbines mounted on high masts above mountain passes, wind power can now be harnessed in your hand, or even on your wrist. HYmini sells a wind turbine that looks like a handheld fan that can power a cellphone, media player or portable game console. It's a great bike accessory that can handle winds up to 40 mph. About 20 minutes of sustained winds can store enough juice to power an iPod for 30 minutes or four minutes of phone talk time. High-end watchmaker Urwerk is selling a watch that uses windpower to regulate its self-winding mechanism. No price is advertised, but an Urwerk predecessor without the wind turbines reportedly sold for more than $100,000.
Solar power. Manufacturers sell a variety of small solar panels with batteries that can store enough power for handheld devices. In an hour of direct sunlight, the Solio Hybrid Solar Charger ($80) can suck up enough power for 40 minutes of MP3 music or 15 minutes of talk time. It can take two sunny days to fully charge a Solio, whose battery can then fully charge a cellphone. Voltaic sells a variety of bags with solar panels, including a $200 model that can charge handheld gadgets and a $500 model that can juice a laptop. Or the Powcell ($90) is a sleeve with solar panels that will slip around your iPhone or BlackBerry Curve to keep them topped off.